Even if one accepts Śāntideva’s idea that political participation is harmful to a good life, that doesn’t mean that one must be finished with political thought. For there’s another key way that politics enters into reflection: as analogy. The politician has often appeared in ethical texts as a figure for the individual; we learn what is good or bad in a single human life by examining what is good or bad for a king or a state.
The most famous use of this analogy between individual and state is likely in Plato’s Republic. In Book II, Socrates reminds Glaucon that one can typically see bigger things more clearly than smaller things. Similarly it is easier to observe justice in a state than in an individual, so we should first ask what justice is in a state, and then we will be more able to see what it is in an individual. The city or state is larger than the individual; “perhaps, then, there is more justice in the larger thing, and it will be easier to learn what it is.” (368)
Plato’s approach, of using the state to illuminate the individual, is not obvious or natural; it was not taken by the Confucians, as far as I can tell. Confucius in Analects I.2 says that those who behave well toward their parents don’t start revolutions; Mencius argues for benevolence over profit by arguing that a state of benevolent people will flourish. Here – not so surprising given the early Confucians’ social context – the point seems to be to figure out how to run a state, and individual conduct is addressed for its relevance to that goal, rather than the other way ’round.
But one can find a similar approach to Plato’s in a more surprising place, where it plays a different role: the work of the Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti (whom I also discussed last time). Continue reading